Understanding Institutions: A Multi-Dimensional Approach
With the rise of nativist policies throughout the world, the growing dangers posed by climate change and rising income inequality, and ever-increasing threats to the rule of law, many turn to the institutions of democracy to achieve desired policy goals. Indeed, if one seeks to address climate change, preserve the rule of law, or reduce income inequality, functioning institutions are needed to further such objectives. But the ability to leverage institutions to achieve legal and policy goals presupposes a common understanding of institutions as well as an appreciation for the ways in which they can and may function. Traditional comparative institutional analysis uses this functional understanding to identify which institutional setting—typically the political process, the markets, or the courts—is the preferred means of achieving one’s chosen legal or policy goals.
This Article argues that merely differentiating between these institutional settings is insufficient to conduct a meaningful comparative analysis. Such a narrow view of institutional settings, what I will call institutional systems and the institutions they contain, leaves much to be desired, particularly as the scale and complexity of both problems and proposed solutions continue to grow. Indeed, this monolithic, one-dimensional view of institutions is ill-equipped to address the scale and scope of contemporary, collective-action problems. This Article develops an approach to comparative institutional analysis that recognizes the rich, multi-dimensional aspects of not only the characteristics of institutions but also the problems institutions are asked to solve. By embracing a robust and comprehensive view of institutions, this new approach to comparative institutional analysis offers a more meaningful and informative foundation upon which to pursue solutions to the complex societal problems of today and those that will emerge in the future.